BY ATANU MITRA (FOLLOW @Atanu00 on Twitter)
On Tuesday afternoon, head coach Stephen Constantine announced a list of 31 players, who would be taking part in India’s preparatory camp in Mumbai from 12th March. The team will then fly out to face Cambodia in a friendly before locking horns with Myanmar in a key AFC Asian Cup qualifier. The list was not short of surprises, both in terms of inclusions and exclusions, and gave a hint or two about the way the British coach wishes to handle things after being offered a contract extension.
It’s a difficult job taking care of a national team and selecting the squad is probably the toughest component. Debate on whether reputation or recent form should be given higher priority has been going on for decades and before every international window, there are a handful of players who look like potential breakout stars. It finally boils down to the coach making a call on whether he wants to stick to his previous plans or wants to throw one of these in-form players into the mix.
Being handed the task of leading the country to the continental competition through the traditional qualification route for the first time in 35 years, the former Rwanda gaffer chose the first option. He had a number of lucrative new faces to choose from and indeed picked a few. But they looked like exceptional cases.
In popular perception, selection in the national team is a recognition for consistent performances in club colours, but the former Rwanda coach has chosen not to play to that tune and has prioritized stability in his unit over ‘rewarding’ I-League heroes. Ever since taking charge of the team in February 2015, Stephen has toiled hard to give more and more new players the chance of proving their mettle in the national colours, handing debuts to 29 professionals in the process. The experiments have yielded decent results in the recent past, as the team has won eight of its last ten encounters.
To carry on with the same momentum, the coach has chosen to stick with the same core even though many of them are either out of form or out of favour in their clubs. The likes of Subrata Paul, Narayan Das, Jackichand Singh, Eugeneson Lyngdoh, Mohammed Rafique are all far from their usual self while Seityasen Singh, Arnab Mondal and Sumeet Passi have struggled to earn minutes on the pitch.
On the other hand, Aizawl FC and Shillong Lajong FC are the two teams scarcely represented, despite being part of the top four with impressive results in the last one month. Khalid Jamil’s team doesn’t have a single member in the preliminary rosters with the exclusion of Jayesh Rane, Lalruatthara and Albino Gomes baffling many. Isaac Vanlalsawma is the lone representative from Lajong, where any of the four Indian defenders could have also made the cut.
While some may claim including the above mentioned players after just a good performance in the last two months would have been a gamble, there are others who may think otherwise.
Milan Singh and Jerry Lalrinzuala, though have got their much-deserved spots after stellar shows in the Indian Super League, while Anas Edathodika finally got noticed after years of no-nonsense defending. His partner in Mohun Bagan back-line, Subhabish Bose, received a maiden call-up, while Kean Lewis was not that lucky. Balwant Singh has once again been overlooked but that hardly comes off as a surprise given Stephen had openly vented his displeasure at Singh’s off-the-ball movement.
While one must laud Stephen’s approach of taking forward the work already done in honing some stars, the question that needs to be asked is whether he is stretching things too far to leave his stamp on the side.
Critics may point that he had lost seven of the right matches in the second qualifying round of the 2018 World Cup. However, it must also be noted that this was the time when he was in the midst of getting to know his best players. Another factor in this regard was the absence of many long national camps which meant that he wasn’t afforded enough time to get the combination right ahead of crucial matches thanks to the cramped domestic calendar.
The feel-good atmosphere around the team is mostly built around the 4-1 thrashing of Puerto Rico five months back and the win against Guam.
The next round of qualifiers, thus, arrive at a crucial juncture for the players and the coach. This is a team that has a single orthodox right-back but five left-backs. Other than Pronay Halder, Isaac and Udanta Singh, none of the midfielders have had noteworthy performances in the I-League.
Stephen Constantine has taken a calculated risk by overlooking some obvious choices and its success will be dependent on whether the players can repay his faith.